Barry’s Blog #32: The Two Great Myths of the 20th Century

Where were you (or your parents) on October 12th, 1944? If you were a teenage girl in the New York City area, you might have been in or outside the Paramount Theater, where some thirty to thirty-five thousand adolescent girls made such a commotion that authorities dubbed the event the Columbus Day Riot. These girls were in “a squealing ecstasy,” according to Time magazine – freaking out, as the next generation would say – over the presence of the pop idol Frank Sinatra (www.pophistorydig.com/?tag=columbus-day-riot). Later, their younger sisters and daughters would do the same thing over Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

If you were a teenage German boy, however, you might have been a member of the 12th SS-Panzer DivisionHitlerjugend, the army of boy soldiers (www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/hitleryouth/hj-boy-soldiers.htm). You might have been one of the 600 survivors of a military unit that had numbered some 10,000 boys only five months before. They had confronted the Allied invasion, often fighting to the last boy, and their brethren would continue to fanatically resist, dying in the thousands in the battle for Berlin.

More purely than in any other example I can cite, these two groups of teenagers were enacting the two great mythic narratives of the twentieth century, myths that western culture had literalized since long before the Greeks and Hebrews created stories to name them.

The American girls were either modern day maenads (from the same Greek root that gives us mania and manic), or they were bacchants. The bacchants willingly worshipped the god Dionysus in irrational, ecstatic trance. The maenads, by contrast, were the mythic women who went insane because they had refused to recognize him as divine. My book delves into the differences between them, and the cultural significance of their choices.

The German boys, sadly, were enacting the myth of the Killing of the Children,which I also address in detail in my book. They had been deluged with Nazi propaganda since early childhood and had been groomed by their elders to offer up their bodies in the great ritual sacrifice of modern, nationalistic war, to die for the fatherland.

Many of my readers may know that I often offer two poems during our poetry salons and rituals. These poems speak to these two myths. The conflict between them has been at the center of western culture for hundreds of years. We can see it today in every Occupy/police encounter.

One myth addresses the explosive surge of erotic and creative energies – the meeting of the spiritual and the sexual – that each new generation offers to its community and the world. It is the cyclic renewal of the world. TheInvocation to Dionysus introduces us to it:

Be good to us, you girl-crazy goat!

 We the poets begin and end our singing through you,

And it’s impossible without you.

Without remembering you, we cannot remember our sacred songs!

The other myth speaks of how western man lost both his knowledge of the old initiation rituals and his protective concern for his own children, how, instead of symbolically killing boys so that they might transition into authentic adults, he gradually made the choice to sacrifice them quite literally. The killing of the children is the great, unspoken (and therefore sacred) secret behind the myth of American innocence. This myth was best given poetic expression by the other poem I often recite, by Wilfred Owen:

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

And, to make things truly mythic, that is, truly complicated, consider that there is a point where these two narratives intersect, in Euripides’ Bacchae. After Dionysus drives the female disbelievers mad, they attack the king and slaughter him, led by his own mother. The release of repressed energy under patriarchy results in the slaughter of the innocent.

And the only way out is further into the madness.

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